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The Little Albert Experiment

The Little Albert Experiment

By Dr. Saul McLeod, published 2020

Little Albert Experiment Summary
  • Watson and Raynor presented Little Albert with a white rat and he showed no fear.
  • Watson then presented the rat with a loud bang that startled Little Albert and made him cry.
  • After the continuous association of the white rat and loud noise, Little Albert was classically conditioned to experience fear at the sight of the rat.
  • Albert's fear generalized to other stimuli that were similar to the rat, including a fur coat, some cotton wool, and a Father Christmas mask.

Watson and Rayner (1920) conducted the Little Albert Experiment to answer 3 questions:
1. Can an infant be conditioned to fear an animal that appears simultaneously with a loud, fear-arousing sound?
2. Would such fear transfer to other animals or to inanimate objects?
3. How long would such fears persist?

Ivan Pavlov showed that classical conditioning applied to animals.  Did it also apply to humans? In a famous (though ethically dubious) experiment, Watson and Rayner (1920) showed that it did.

Little Albert was a 9-month-old infant who was tested on his reactions to various neutral stimuli. He was shown a white rat, a rabbit, a monkey and various masks. Albert described as "on the whole stolid and unemotional" showed no fear of any of these stimuli.

However, what did startle him and cause him to be afraid was if a hammer was struck against a steel bar behind his head. The sudden loud noise would cause "little Albert to burst into tears.

Little Albert Classical Conditioning

When Little Albert was just over 11 months old, the white rat was presented, and seconds later the hammer was struck against the steel bar.

After seven pairings of the rat and noise (in two sessions, one week apart), Albert reacted with crying and avoidance when the rat was presented without the loud noise

By now little Albert only had to see the rat and he immediately showed every sign of fear. He would cry (whether or not the hammer was hit against the steel bar) and he would attempt to crawl away.

Little Albert Classical Conditioning

Five days later, Watson and Rayner found that Albert developed phobias of objects which shared characteristics with the rat; including the family dog, a fur coat, some cotton wool and a Father Christmas mask! This process is known as generalization.

The Little Albert Experiment demonstrated that classical conditioning could be used to create a phobia. A phobia is an irrational fear, that is out of proportion to the danger. In this experiment, a previously unafraid baby was conditioned to become afraid of a rat.

Over the next few weeks and months, Little Albert was observed and ten days after conditioning his fear of the rat was much less marked. This dying out of a learned response is called extinction.

However, even after a full month, it was still evident, and the association could be renewed by repeating the original procedure a few times.

Unfortunately, Albert's mother withdrew him from the experiment the day the last tests were made, and Watson and Rayner were unable to conduct further experiments to reverse the condition response.

Critical Evaluation

  • The researchers confounded their own experiment by conditioning Little Albert using the same neutral stimuli as the generalized stimuli (rabbit and dog).
  • Some doubts exist as to whether or not this fear response was actually a phobia. When Albert was allowed to suck his thumb he showed no response whatsoever. This stimulus made him forget about the loud sound. It took more than 30 times for Watson to finally take Albert's thumb out to observe a fear response.
  • Other limitations included no control subject and no objective measurement of the fear response in Little Albert (e.g. the dependent variable was not operationalized).
  • As this was an experiment of one individual the findings cannot be generalized to others (e.g. low external validity). Albert had been reared in a hospital environment from birth and he was unusual as he had never been seen to show fear or rage by staff. Therefore, Little Albert may have responded differently in this experiment to how other young children may have, these findings will therefore be unique to him.
  • The Little Albert Experiment was conducted before ethical guidelines were implemented in psychology, and this study can only be judged retrospectively. For example, (i) the experiment was conducted without the knowledge or consent of Albert's parents, (ii) creating a fear response is an example of psychological harm, and finally (iii) Watson and Raynor did not desensitize Albert to his fear of rats.

The cognitive approach criticizes the behavioral model as it does not take mental processes into account. They argue that the thinking processes that occur between a stimulus and a response are responsible for the feeling component of the response.

Ignoring the role of cognition is problematic, as irrational thinking appears to be a key feature of phobias. Tomarken et al. (1989) presented a series of slides of snakes and neutral images (e.g. trees) to phobic and non-phobic participants. The phobics tended to overestimate the number of snake images presented.

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2018, October 08). Pavlov's dogs. Simply Psychology.

APA Style References

Harris, B. (1979). Whatever happened to little Albert?. American psychologist, 34(2), 151.

Tomarken, A. J., Mineka, S., & Cook, M. (1989). Fear-relevant selective associations and covariation bias. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 98(4), 381.

Watson, J.B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist Views It. Psychological Review, 20, 158-177.

Watson, J. B., & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of experimental psychology, 3(1), 1.

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2020, May 30). The little albert experiment. Simply Psychology.

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